It is a new era for film distribution. Thanks to the technical advancements made by streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, the idea of going to a movie theater is becoming less attractive for audiences than just staying at home on the couch with a bowl of fairly-priced popcorn.
New frontiers for film distribution have started to surface in response to this trend. Case in point: the latest film by American filmmaking dynamic duo, Joel and Ethan Coen, has found an unlikely home on Netflix, as well as a limited theatrical release. Written over the course of 25 years, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is an anthology Western of six stories, complete with all the technical mastery and sharp writing for which the Coens are known.
Originally, yet incorrectly, rumored as a mini-series, the stories in “Scruggs” are simple, yet effective. Few stories feature heavy plotting and focus instead on characterization and atmosphere. Some of the stories are open-ended, and some take on a mythic quality. As a result, these stories feel like a batch of folk tales; the final story even takes inspiration from Irish folklore (the “Cóiste Bodhar,” to be precise). The common denominator found throughout “Scruggs” is the act, and theme, of death.
The stories vary from one another, going from a comedic tone to an oppressively bleak one at the drop of a hat — the Liam Neeson segment in particular is a real optimism shredder — but at no point does the film feel confused or lost. There’s almost some sort of dream logic guiding the audience from story to story, aided by interluding segments of the (fake, on-screen) book from which these tales apparently come.
It may go without saying, given that it’s a film by the Coen bros, but “Scruggs” is a truly impressive piece of film. On the whole, “Scruggs” is undeniably gorgeous, with cinematography handled by Bruno Delbonnel.
“Scruggs” is also a compelling argument for the virtues of digital cinematography: each segment has its own beautiful color palette and photographic style, ranging from warm to ice-cold, modern to old-school. The dialogue is, as to be expected, super – the Coen’s love for the “old-English” of the era shines through the entire film, and the cast does an excellent job of bringing the text to the big screen. Action sequences may be sparse in the film, but when they do occur, they are incredibly suspenseful, amusing or both. In short, every piece of film is specially honed for each individual story, creating the rare anthology film that’s not only consistent but consistently surprising.
The stories themselves are a series of vignettes of the post Civil-War American frontier. “Scruggs’s” first story shares the film’s title, and opens the film with a bang. The story follows titular gunslinger Buster Scruggs, something of a cartoon character brought to life, a cowboy version of Bugs Bunny. Our hero wanders the Wild West with guitar in hand, singing ballads and outgunning bad guys whenever need be. Scruggs is played pitch-perfectly by Tim Blake Nelson, whose sharp and witty delivery helps animate this parody of the archetypal Western hero. It doesn’t hurt that he has one hell of a singing voice, either.
Energy continues to pump through the film as we transition to our second story, “Near Algodones,” following James Franco as a bank robber. However, the fun stops as we reach the third story, “Meal Ticket.” The story follows a roadshow attraction, and the witty dialogue the audience has been enjoying up until this point suddenly dries up. The icy whites and blues of the story’s photography only accentuate the desolate and lonely road the story takes.
Thankfully, the fourth story, “All Gold Canyon” (adapted from a Jack London short story), functions as a much-needed palate-cleanser, featuring breathtaking cinematography and none other than Tom Waits as a budding gold prospector.
The fifth story, “The Girl Who Got Rattled,” is the most plot-heavy and features a knockout performance by Zoe Kazan. The sixth and final story, “The Mortal Remains,” plays out almost like John Ford doing “The Twilight Zone.” This story is equal parts eerie and atmospheric and is a very fitting finale for the film.
It’s perhaps a shame that the Netflix release of “Scruggs” disincentivizes trips to the movie theater to see it, since the gorgeous filmmaking and cinematography of the film practically begs to be viewed on the big screen. At any rate, the incredible range – and consistency of “Scruggs” proves that the Coens are one of the few artistic teams capable of any cinematic feat they put their minds to.
Also, you are unlikely to see a more impressive computer generated deer in any other film you watch this year.